Monday, April 28, 2008

It May Not Pay to be Smart...If You Are a Fly

It pays be to smart.....doesn't it? Many of us struggled through years of undergraduate and graduate school just to get an upper-hand in the great game of life. But now, a new research article in the journal Evolution suggests that, at least for flies, being smart is going to cost you... in lifespan.

Researchers at the University of Lausanne bred flies that were "smarter" in responding to specific scents than other flies. When they took at look at the lifespan of these flies they realized that the "smart" flies lived about 15% less time than the , well, "not as smart" flies.

Drosophila are often used as model organisms for a variety of genetic studies. This study is important in that it may help shed some light on the "costs" of intelligence. By costs I mean what the organism has to give up in order to develop intelligence, and this is something that we really need to know if we are going to ever figure out how complex intelligence evolved on this planet. However, lets make something clear... these were not smart flies. Flies really aren't very bright, I know, I breed them. They are like fish in a tank... pretty to look at, but not much going on upstairs. So although we can use fruit flies for a variety of purposes, let us not give them credit for being smart.

What I worry about is what will happen when a sound-bite of this information gets out. We already have a problem keeping kids in school - telling them that straight A's will cost them 10 years of their life... well, that would be a mistake. Someone, somewhere, is going to use this information to justify dropping out of school and smoking 2 packs a day.... just watch.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

My Friend, E. coli

While as a geneticist my vote would go to Drosophila melanogaster as the greatest organism of all time, I do recognize that Escherichia coli is probably one of the most beloved organisms of the biomedical research community. This versatile little microbe can be found in teaching and research labs from high schools to research institutions and large biomedical facilities. We probably know more about E. coli than almost any other organism on the planet, including ourselves. Many of the advances in medicine and drug development would probably not be possible if it were not for this wonderfully versatile little bacteria. But, as we are all aware, E. coli has a dark side.

The March 24 issue of New Scientist features an article ("Mystery Food Poisoning Traced to Salads") which presents statistics on the increase in the rate of food poisoning associated with salad greens. While the article does not specifically mention E. coli, if you asked the common person on the street what was causing the food poisoning in spinach and lettuce, most would guess this bacterium. In fact, E. coli is probably the only microbe, or any other organism for that matter, that most people know by its scientific name! Unfortunately, that recognition is not a good one. From baby diapers and water parks in the 1990s to ground beef and salad greens in this decade, E. coli has earned a reputation as a menace.

I have found that most students are surprised to find out that their intestines contain more bacterial cells than there are human cells in their bodies. Most are disgusted by the thought, and some actually pale when I mention that one of the leading organisms is E. coli. I have even had a few ask if they can get antibiotics from the campus health clinic to rid them of these "parasites."

After a brief discussion of why these little creatures are present in our system, and the benefits that they provide us by protecting us from harmful bacteria, synthesizing necessary vitamins, and stabilizing our blood glucose levels, most of the students develop a real appreciation for E. coli. From that point we can proceed to discussions on how important it is to keep your intestinal bacteria content by reducing unnecessary use of antibiotics and consuming plenty of fiber. It is then relatively easy to understand why probiotics, such as yogurt and Acidophilus pills, work as supplements. With a little public relations work, E. coli is transformed from the villain to a misunderstood hero.

Why is any of this important? In the March 1 edition of Science News, science writer Janet Raloff ("Nurturing Our Microbes") presents an intriguing possibility that someday it may be possible to reprogram our natural flora of microbes to combat disease. She first discusses how probiotic supplements may be used to increase the efficiency of intestinal bacteria in enhancing our immune system, by increasing the absorption of nutrients such as calcium and by regulating weight. Raloff then presents comments by Jeremy Nicholson of the Imperial College in London, who said that future drug therapies might one day be directed at the bacterial inhabitants of the intestinal system.

As a researcher, I think that is an important advance for medicine. We all know of the problems that have plagued large-scale implementation of gene therapy. Given the number of bacteria in the lumen of the gut, it should be possible to achieve a higher rate of transformation than is experienced in in vivo eukaryotic cells. Furthermore, by having the bacteria produce the drug of interest, it may be easier to get the drug directly into the bloodstream than traditional oral routes that need to navigate the hostile environment of the stomach.

And since this is an election year, and at least some of the focus appears to be on health care, the use of genetically modified E. coli may reduce the cost of certain medicines, since once transformed the individual would have a constant, renewable source of the drug.

However, before we proceed with the development of drug-producing recombinant bacteria, I would like to make a suggestion. If the drug companies state that they are ready to produce a genetically altered bacterium, especially one named E. coli, the general public is going to have a revolt.

Movies such as I Am Legend have not presented a pretty picture of genetically engineered organisms. Recent public responses to cloned meat, and once again to certain forms of immunizations, reveal that the general public is not convinced that we know what we are doing.

So my suggestion is this — start a public relations campaign on behalf of E. coli. Get E. coli, or its agent, on The Daily Show and Good Morning America. Start thinking about how to spin the benefits of E. coli to an increasingly research-phobic public. Work the media, begin ad campaigns, and most importantly, get the message out to the science teachers to incorporate it into their curriculum. For if we don't, this promising medical advance may be a tremendous waste of money.

Note: this article first appeared in the April 10, 2008 issue of BioWorld Perspectives, and is reproduced here by permission of AHC Media, LLC

Friday, April 4, 2008

Autism in the News

Autism is once again in the news. In the past several weeks news agencies, such as CNN, have brought autism back into public thinking through coverage both on TV and the web. While the news network has done an adequate job of presenting the concerns of parents and the opinions of the scientists, they have done very little to present the basic scientific information about autism. From my perspective, most people are completely confused about autism. In the past, an autistic child was sometimes viewed as the fault of the parents, and in the current round of coverage the disease is sometimes being presented as a result of a medical community which prefers not to face the facts regarding vaccinations. Neither of which is really true. Instead, we need to recognize that autism is a very complicated disorder – and that complicated disorders can take some time to sort out.

First of all, and probably most importantly, autism is most likely not a single disease. Like Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, autism is a term that we have adapted to explain a related group of symptoms, in this case severe communication disorders. Alzheimer’s researchers now distinguish their disease using terms such as “late-onset” and “early-onset”. We need the same approach for autism. We need to develop a common set of classifications for the disease so that we all know what type of autism we are talking about. And these classifications need to be easily understood by the news organizations and general public. No scientific techno-babble please! For those who are trying to understand autism, we need to be able to distinguish the various forms so that we know if the news and the scientific community is talking about a common form or a rare form. Also, since autism is not a single disease, we can’t expect that the disease is caused by the same factors in each case. Which leads me to the second important point – genetics.

Autism is probably what geneticists call a multifactorial, or complex, disorder. What this means is not only is genetics involved, but also environmental factors. Those environmental factors are without doubt chemicals. While the news has been focusing on thimerosal, a chemical additive that was used in many vaccines, the truth is that we live in an increasingly chemical world. Some scientists estimate that we come in contact with over 70,000 man-made chemicals over the course of our lives. We have no idea how many of these chemicals interact with each other. In other words, our cells, and especially the easily influenced cells of a developing child’s nervous system, are being bombarded with a potentially hostile array of chemical compounds. Now, back to the genetics. Many of our genes have minor variations that go unnoticed until the cell is placed in a certain environmental condition. So say for gene X there are 2 variants, lets call them X-1 and X-2. When X-1 is exposed to a certain chemical cocktail, the gene continues to function normally. But when X-2 is exposed to the same group of chemicals, the environment alters the way the gene works, called gene expression by scientists, producing slight changes in the cells. In a complex trait it may be necessary to have many of these gene variants, say X-1, Y-4 and Z-2 acting at the same time to produce a disorder. Sorting out multifactorial complex traits takes time and patience by the scientific community.

So what can we do? As parents and concerned individuals we need to aggressively lobby our elected officials to increase funding to not only study this disease, but to make life better for the increasing number of kids who are being diagnosed with autism. In addition to long-term studies of people with autism, we need to start enrolling pregnant mothers in prenatal studies that examine everything from the genetics of the parents to the types of chemicals that the mother comes into contact with during her pregnancy. Only then will we be able to provide some real answers on what is causing autism, and maybe develop a means of reducing its impact on future generations.